The authority of Scripture

This is the sixth of a series of posts on inspiration, inerrancy, and hermeneutics.

Preliminary Remarks The purpose of these next few posts is to examine my perspective of the doctrine of the Fall, and specifically how it is influenced by my view of the Bible. The purpose of this post is apologetic rather than polemic: my purpose is less to convince anyone of the view I hold and more to explain how someone who holds it deals with doctrinal issues. The earlier posts in this series argued that our Scriptures are not inerrant and are not in fact completely without scientific and historical errors. I also made a plea for interpreting the Bible as literature: that is, we need to recognize that the words of Scripture were not completely isolated from the words written by their authors’ contemporaries and we must therefore identify the literary genre in which they were composed as a first order of business when interpreting the Bible. I cautioned against a view of the nature of Scripture that overspiritualizes its origins, pointing out that if God had wished to set down a series of unanalyzable propositions free from all impurities and the influence of man’s fallibility, He could definitely have chosen a more suitable means than using words written in three different languages over several centuries that must in turn be passed down through many more centuries and translated into countless other languages. Moreover, Christians are left bickering and head-butting each other while trying to determine the supposedly undistilled, pristine, immutable, and uncontradictable truth for almost any given passage. The fundamentalist might understandably wish that God had provided an inerrant and infallible key to interpretation, one decidedly more reliable than the deceptively straight-forward “literal whenever possible” model, which itself all too rarely yields a single, indisputable outcome in its application.

The problem is that the idea of not having an inerrant and hence perfectly uncontestable final authority makes many Christians uncomfortable, and sets many to wondering how rejecting inerrancy limits the Bible’s value and usefulness. The next few installments of this series are meant to address two concerns related to that question. First, I will summarize my belief in the Bible’s origins and nature; second, I want to present a case study of the resultant hermeneutic, with a brief and tentative exposition of how I interpret the passages that have resulted in the doctrine of the Fall.

Basic assumptions

The participants in any debate come to the table with a number of presuppositions and assumptions. I don’t believe it’s possible to nearly divest oneself of them all, but I would like to be as honest as possible in divulging the ones I’ve identified and consider relevant.

First, I affirm that God intended the whole canon of Scripture for His Church’s use. Throughout history, God has interacted with His creation, revealing Himself to mankind and guiding it towards better and better understandings of Himself and His ways. Rather than entrusting this cross-generational, accumulative knowledge of His truth solely to word of mouth transmission, He called men to testify to these truths using a somewhat less mutable mode of transmission: the written word. This impulse to testify with the pen manifested itself on each occasion in a form of literature familiar to its authors and original recipients. God naturally had interest in seeing that those writings most profitable for His Church be recognized as such and dubbed with a notable authority and accessibility; this concern was addressed with the canonization of Scripture.

When I talk about the “authority” of Scripture, I am referring to the unique status of certain works of human literature that were plucked from the rest and elevated to a special status. This status is rooted in the principle Paul articulates about the Old Testament in 1 Tim. 3:16-17: “All Scripture is God-breathed and profitable for doctrine, reproof, correction, and instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.” The church’s successive efforts at canonization extended the virtue of profitability for theological and pragmatic insights to the New Testament, and this gave the whole Bible (more or less as we have it) a Providential seal of approval that I refer to as “authority”. I make no claims about the Bible being “authoritative” in the same exaggerated degree that most evangelicals and all fundamentalists do, because this is surely an overextension of Paul’s principle: he could very well have stated the supremacy of the Scriptures’ authority if he wished, and I see it as a clear abuse of his measured description of their usefulness to claim that he meant to establish the “verbal, plenary” view of inspiration.

The inerrantists agree with the presupposition of Scripture being authorized by God. Many argue that this presupposition is proved, or at least affirmed, by the alleged fact that the Bible is completely without error of any kind; if the Bible is not inerrant, these often see no other possible basis for believing in its authority. While it is true that inerrancy would constitute almost undeniable evidence of the Bible’s authority and its teachings’ validity, denying inerrancy nonetheless negates neither, especially when there are other grounds for belief in them.

Specifically, another of the philosophical underpinnings of my view alluded to above is very similar to one that has long been the guiding force of Catholicism, and its surest justification. The role of the Community of Believers in parsing and passing on divine revelation is the basis for Roman Catholic ecclesiology. Protestants have customarily been horrified by the Catholic rejection of sola scriptura in favor of scriptura et traditio. A Catholic puts Holy Scripture alongside Church tradition because the two are in origin and essence indistinguishable: Holy Scripture is itself a form of Church tradition, the testimony of ancient believers affirmed and handed down by subsequent believers. By this same standard of approval, we rightly esteem Scripture as having seniority because the same timeless, Providentially-guided body that created it has ranked it so.

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